“OK, you’ve just lost your engine. Where are you going to land?”
It’s the question every student pilot dreads but which every flight instructor asks at some point.
The instructor has just pulled the throttle back to idle, and the student has just seconds to set up an emergency landing – looking for a farmer’s field (land with the furrows, not across them, to reduce the risk of flipping over), a golf course, or a straight stretch of highway with no overpasses and as little traffic as possible.
Gravity rules. The aircraft will glide (or plummet) toward the ground. And assuming there’s no ejection seat or parachute, survival now depends on the pilot’s skills in quieting fear, judging the landscape below, and flying to a successful landing – defined now as one that can be walked away from.
In training, the instructor at some point well above impact throttles up the aircraft engine, then explains what the student did or didn’t do correctly.
(I still sweat remembering my own experience as a student naval aviator in Pensacola, Fla., 40-plus years ago. My instructor, who had otherwise indicated no sadistic tendencies, took control of the T-34 Navy trainer, flew a couple of stomach-churning loops and aileron rolls, leveled out upside-down, pulled the throttle back to idle and said, “You’ve got it. Where are you going to land?” I must have done something right, because a few training flights later he pronounced me “safe for solo.”)
John Pedersen had such an experience early Sunday morning.
He was flying his small Coyote II two-seater at about 2,000 feet over downtown Chicago when an external tail part broke loose, causing the aircraft to shake violently.
He radioed a “Mayday,” but knew he couldn’t make it to either Midway or O’Hare airports.
Down below was Lake Shore Drive.
Mr. Pedersen, a 51-year-old electrician who told the Chicago Tribune that he’d been flying for about five years, picked a spot, timed his approach to take advantage of a red traffic light when cars were stopped, and smoothly planted the aircraft on the roadway. Firefighters and police quickly arrived to help push the Coyote II onto the grass.
“Television crews soon started showing up, with reporters and cameramen crowding around the soft-spoken pilot clad in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt,” the newspaper reported. “Hands in his sweatshirt pockets, Pedersen described his flight from Schaumburg Airport to Lake Shore Drive, repeating it again as other reporters walked up to the scene.”
"It's a blessing," he said.
As reporters and bystanders crowded around, Pedersen cellphoned his fiancée to detail the location where she could fetch him.
“You can’t miss it,” he said, stating the obvious.
When Ileana Alvarez arrived, she teased him about his aviation pastime.
"He wants me to get on a plane with him," she joked to reporters. "Are you kidding me?"
But, she added, "As long as he's OK, that’s what matters to me."
There’s a first for everything, and this was Pedersen’s first flying emergency.
“There’s always a risk. I always look for a place to land,” he said. “That’s important. That’s probably what saved my life today.”
Pedersen owes his flight instructor a root beer float.